Apologies in advance for the cynicism and crankiness that I fear is about to pour forth as I contemplate the big Repub debate of last night.
The “debate” was awful on almost every level, although its problems are so deeply rooted in the current U.S. political culture and the current norms of TV journalism that it seems almost pointless to blame either the candidates or the moderators.
It’s not a debate. The candidates don’t really disagree on much, at least not much they will acknowledge. There’s a set of 10 or 20 things you have to assert to have any chance of winning the Repub nomination this year. If at some point in your previous career you believed something different, the moderators and the other candidates will try to put you on the spot. Your challenge is to tap dance away from that past “error” without looking too embarrassingly like that’s what you are doing.
The biggest of these — and it will continue all year — is the sin of Romneycare. Former Gov. Mitt Romney has to continue to apologize for it without seeming to, even though he left behind a state with one of the lowest rates of uninsurance in the country. Texas has one of the worst uninsured rates but this is because Gov. Rick Perry apparently loves freedom more than Romney does.
There’s too many of them to call this a debate. The punditocracy has decided it’s a two-person race, which may be correct at the moment (although it’s a very recent development, and we have only the polls to tell us it’s true, even at the moment). Nonetheless, the debate was all about Romney and Perry, even when the moderators were forced to throw a question to the other candidates, it was often designed to shed light on the Romney-Perry contest.
The questions stink. The moderators waste a lot of words trying to set up a question that will put the candidate on the spot. (John Harris seemed much worse than Brian Williams on this score last night.) But the candidates find it hilariously easy to slip away to what they want to say. In fact, there is a new freedom to ignore the question or insult the question. Newt Gingrich has broken through in each of the last two debates by directly attacking the questioners’ motives and repudiating their efforts to get Republicans to disagree with one another (even suggesting that they must be trying to help President Obama). See “It’s not a debate.”
The answers are too short. Also too long. The new norm seems to be one-minute answers and 30-second follow-ups. Even though this was a long debate (almost two hours), the format did away with the old tradition of allowing a long opening and closing statement. Those were always boring and repetitive anyway. Is there a way out of this problem via format-reform? I’m skeptical but we need to keep trying.
The facts don’t matter. Candidates make many factual assertions. Many of them are technically defensible without being truly accurate. Moderator Williams said that Texas has one of the lowest high school graduation rates in the country. Perry replied that the rate has risen during his tenure as governor and is now the highest it’s ever been. Let’s assume that both of these are technically defensible. What have we learned?
Texas has led the nation in job creation over recent years (this is beyond dispute, although the reasons for that and the quality of the jobs is much-disputed) but still ranks in the middle of the states in unemployment. What have we learned? Perry said that Romney’s predecessor as Massachusetts governor, Michael Dukakis, created more jobs than Romney did. Romney said that Perry’s predecessor (yes, George W. Bush) created more Texas jobs than Perry has. The AP fact check says both are true. It would be stupid enough — especially for Republicans who think government can’t create jobs — to assume that every new job in a state is an accomplishment of the sitting governor. But comparing job numbers across two different periods when the national economy was doing very different things is even stupider.
The spin matters more. It’s hilarious enough that there is a room set up for the aftermath of all such debates that’s actually called “the spin room” where representatives of the candidates engage in the form of soft lying that we politely call “spin.” The after-debate analysis on MSNBC actually interviewed Ed Rollins from the spin room. Rollins works for the Michele Bachmann campaign (although he recently dropped from campaign manager to something much lower). The analysts asked Rollins to rebut the suddenly overwhelming conventional wisdom that Bachmann’s brief status as a top-tier candidate is over, as reflected in the recent polling and now confirmed by her relatively invisible performance in the debate. Rollins said she did fine, didn’t get many questions (because she has now been declared less than top-tier) but sounded smart in her answers.
By the low standards on which we grade these things, especially in the Bachmann case, I think I agree with Rollins. But it doesn’t matter, unless Bachmann sees an uptick in her polling numbers or is able to engineer a magic moment in some future debate. (Hint: The magic moments of debates have very little to do with sounding smart.)
The history nerd strikes. By the way, the first televised presidential debate, Kennedy-Nixon in 1960, was much more substantive and was carried by all the networks. (There was no cable back then, so if you had your TV on, you had to watch the debate.) But the spin-room and post-debate analysis hadn’t been invented yet. Viewers had all night to reach their own conclusions about what they had seen and heard before they could read some analysis in the next morning’s paper. The debate ended in the middle of prime time and the networks went back to regular programming. On one channel that was “Celebrity Bowling.”
The magic moment. There wasn’t one last night, but we’re pretending there was. Historically, these magic moments are always kinda stupid. What was so brilliant about Ronald Reagan saying to Jimmy Carter, “There you go again”? The first President Bush got clobbered in one debate because, when he thought the camera was on someone else, he glanced at his watch. Walter Mondale scorched his chief rival for the 1984 nomination by asking Gary Hart, “Where’s the beef?” — which was the gag line from a Wendy’s hamburger commercial that Mondale later confessed he had never seen.
Last night didn’t have one that will go down in history, but based on the post-debate analysis I heard, we’ve decided that Gov. Perry’s decision to repeat his “Ponzi scheme” metaphor for Social Security was the big moment. Some analysts thought this will kill him with older voters. Some thought it will reassure his base that he stands tall and doesn’t run away from controversy. If you listen carefully, Perry is trying to contain the problem. A true Ponzi scheme is a criminal enterprise, a swindle. Perry isn’t saying that about Social Security. He’s saying that anyone who tells today’s young payroll taxpayers that everything is fine with Social Security and that their future benefits are guaranteed without adjustment is wrong. Actually he says that’s a “monstrous lie,” which is way over the top. And by the way, no one is saying that.
But it’s true that there is a substantial long-term sustainability issue with Social Security. Something will have to change. Perry’s general impulse for such problems, which is to turn them over to the states, would be crazy in the Social Security context. I’m not sure he’s even proposing that. I’m not sure he’s proposing anything. Herman Cain came out for full privatization along the Chilean model. But I’m not sure anyone else put a proposal on the table last night. Isn’t that what a debate like this should be for?
Update: This post was updated to reflect that it was Herman Cain who backed the Chilean model for privatization of Social Security. Hat tip to alert reader/commenter David Mindeman.